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Take a Trip into the Fijian Afterlife with Clarence Dass in "Sala ni Yalo: Path of the Shades"

COMIC BOOK YETI: Thanks for joining me today here in Fiji, Clarence. I haven’t gotten to start one of these interviews with a resounding bula vinaka yet, but the time has come!

Now, I’ve had the pleasure of watching you build Sala ni Yalo: The Path of the Shades from initial concept art, through your submitted assignment, to a finished book. I know you completed this as an assignment for a graduate course at the University of the South Pacific here in Fiji. Can you detail for readers the context of the course in which you initially began working on this title, and what your research process entailed?

CLARENCE DASS: So the course I was doing was called Thought, Philosophy and Ethics in the Pacific. The research component for it required us to look at a practice or a system of belief from Pacific history and present it either as a standard written assignment or an art assignment. The art assignment could have been a dance, a short film or a painting. I asked if it could be a comic book and my lecturer was more than happy to see it as a comic.

My research initially was on the iTaukei custom of “the 100 Nights”, which today is a series of (mainly) Christian prayers and gatherings spread over 100 Nights. Traditionally though, the 100 Nights was very different. Those mourning the loss of their loved one would do things like, not eat his or her favorite food, not cut their nails or hair. The ceremony could not be attended by non- married men or women. And all of this was done because they believed their actions would aid the spirit or yalo of the deceased person in the afterlife.

My book, Sala Ni Yalo: Path of the Shades is about what the iTaukei people believed happened to the spirit on the other side while these tasks were carried out. It was loosely based on an oral tale from the Eastern provinces of the main island called Sala Ni Yalo, which translates to “path of the shade”. I came across bits and pieces of it during my research, mainly in old books from the 1800s. I thought there was enough of a leaner narrative to make for the basis of a cool story and then I filled in the gaps with character designs and such.

CBY: Since this is your first title with a publisher - Living The Line - can you tell us a bit about your background with comics and media, and how you’ve been building your portfolio over the years towards this release?

CD: I’ve been drawing my whole life and I’ve loved comic books ever since I could remember. I started drawing comics seriously about two years ago, before the pandemic! I thought being stuck at home because of lock down and stuff, I’d have more time to focus on getting better at drawing and making comics, but other things came up to keep me busy.

BUT I started off making fan comics. Just drawing the kind of books I wanted see more of. I used these fan comics as practice and it became a decent indication of how much people were enjoyed my art. I did a Batman/ Lovecraft fan comic that got like, one-hundred-thousand views over 24 hours! That’s when I started getting a bit more confident as a comic artist. I’m not saying it was the best looking comic, but I was happy that my art was good enough to convey the story I wanted to tell and have people enjoy it. I did a Ninja Turtle fan comic after that, and that got some mad views too. All of this was me getting the hang of making comics.

I remember seeing a video with Jim Lee once and he said something like, if you can do a page a night and make deadlines, that’s what the higher ups look for in an artist. So I wanted to be able to nail one page a night.

I kept putting off my own original book because I always thought I wasn’t ready, but the project deadline brought on by my course was a good excuse to get me started and done with it.

Sala Ni Yalo was never intended to be published. It’s as personal as a project can get. I was lucky that Sean Robinson from Living the Line saw me sharing about the book, asked to look at it, and then said that he wanted to print it. I can’t imagine it doing incredibly well, because I know how hard it is for creator-owned books, let alone some obscure book from Fiji about some no name i’Taukei warrior. BUT lets see how it goes.

CBY: Living here in Fiji, we don’t have any dedicated comic book shops. What was it like growing up so geographically removed from the hubs where comics were being made? How did you access new material, and how do you think the availability (or lack thereof) of certain comics shaped your specific tastes as a reader and aesthetic as a creator?

CD: Back in the '80s and '90s, a lot of odd shops and stores around Suva (the capital of Fiji) would have comic books for about a dollar and I’d buy one every day after school. We had the big two comics and we also had stuff like 2000 AD or the old Mirage Turtles. Thinking about it now, I can’t believe they were so readily available here in Fiji, because now you’d be lucky to find a good regular book shop, let alone one that sells comics.

So those comics that I’d collect as a kid are the books that shaped my reading tastes. My hill is that the '80s and '90s was the best era for comics. Everything I dig today throws back to those times. Everything from that time is gold now. From the indie scene, to the Big Two. There’s some merit to all of it. Watchmen, The Crow, Love and Rockets, Age of Apocalypse, The Dark Knight Returns, TMNT, Spawn, The Maxx… so much gold to dig through, and that’s the well known stuff. I love finding stuff I had missed as a kid from the '80s and '90s, especially from the indie scene. And when it comes to Marvel and DC, I live off of back issues.

Since the '90s, when we got the internet, I started ordering comics. It was around this time that people stopped bringing comics in. So if I really dug a book or if I saw something I really liked, I would order it in. My first two blind orders online around 2001 were Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and The Crow. So my comic collection is very focused. I can’t just walk into a store and grab everything. I can’t just order everything either because exchange rates and shipping rates are a killer.

I mostly read stuff on Comixology and order the hard copies for stuff I really enjoyed and would want to read over and over again.

CBY: As an addendum to the geographic distance, prior to the advent of disseminated internet access amongst the general population, what sort of lag time in the cultural drift from other countries do you think has contributed to Fiji’s character? As one artist in a relatively small community you’ve worked within over the years, can you elaborate upon what sort of cultural/creative phenomena might have arisen in unique ways in Fiji?

CD: As a kid in the '80s, I was pop culturally up to date! I got the Transformers on time, I was into the Turtles at the right time. Saw Tim Burton's Batman in '89. Fiji was pretty hip to whatever was happening overseas, no doubt because of all the expats we had in the country. By the time the '90s rolled out we had MTV, WCW, Grunge, all on time. BUT I think the cultural impact comes from how a lot of things tended to stick around a lot longer in Fiji. Bob Marley, The Eagles, Van Damme, Arnold Schwarzenegger, these things are still top tier here, I think. The Phantom, Lee Falk's swashbuckling hero, was still a staple of Fijian readers long after he was done overseas. Now days with the internet, we are pretty spot on with trends, but in the '80s and '90s, people liked a hand full of stuff and just stuck to it. Because we couldn’t just walk into stores and buy new stuff. So we’d watch the same VHS tapes over and over or play the same CDs and records. So I grew up on VHS tapes filled with Saturday morning cartoons and The Terminator or Robocop. Up until 1998, the Super Nintendo was still the newest thing here. I almost bought one, but the dude at the store said I should check out something called a “play station” across the road. I never went back!

CBY: With Sala ni Yalo, you have presented the broader global comic audience with a glimpse into some legends of the path through the indigenous Fijian afterlife. Can you elaborate a bit (without spoiling the journey) on how you chose the elements to depict, and are there any other myths or legends from Fiji you didn’t include, but found particularly compelling which you could share with our readers?

CD: I mostly based my book on a mix mash of tellings of the Path of the Shades story. There were a number of smaller side adventures that the Shade goes through in a few of the texts, but I narrowed it down to something that had a nice narrative flow to it. I noticed early on how the journey of the spirit through the iTaukei afterlife was some what similar to Norse and Greek myths, particularly to do with the ferryman, so I knew I wanted to have that in there to showcase the similarities between cultures and to give audiences something familiar.

To depict the characters that our hero runs into, I looked at old Fijian carvings and statues, because I wanted everything in the book to be rooted in Fijian culture. Right down to the main character's funeral attire, I wanted this book to be a glimpse at something you don’t get to see everyday. So I tried to include as many elements as I could that showed things specific to Fiji.

As for things I didn’t include, there was one account of the spirit running into cannibal spirits and another of a wanderer that roams the spirit world with an axe, looking to cut down shades. I thought these could be fleshed out into their own stories later.

CBY: As someone who has also worked in audio/visual broadcast media, what can you say about the variation in form and process required to work through producing a comic book? As a former radio announcer - which is a solely auditory/verbal medium - how do you switch gears to create as a cartoonist - which can be a solely visual, and sometimes wordless, medium - and what sort of commonalities can you identify across formats?

CD: I think it all comes down to having a clear narrative. I used to produce radio plays, without visuals, so i had to rely on audio queues to paint this world for people to explore audibly. With Sala Ni Yalo, the interesting thing is that I actually tried to make purely visual. There’s no thought balloons or descriptions, just the odd translation here and there and four speech bubbles in iTaukei with translations. You could just flip through the book and the pictures will give you a fair idea of what’s going on. At the end of the book, there is a little bit of explanation on what’s actually going for context. I think the whole book can be understood without this explanation save for one very specific spot. BUT you could totally read this and have your own interpretation of it. So I gave myself that limitation, of having no text and dialogue - it’s similar to having the limitation of no visuals in radio. I think it makes you more creative, because you have to be. I read somewhere once that you write what you can’t draw and draw what you don’t have to explain, but I wanted all of it to be explained through the art only.

CBY: We’ve talked a bit about the extent to which fandom is limited in Fiji, so as an exercise in scenario planning and visualization, what sort of experience would you most appreciate in the future when you have the opportunity to attend conventions overseas? Additionally, what do you think it will take to see Fiji foster its own market (of both creators and readers) to the point where it can host a comic convention of its own?

CD: I would love to have other artists to work with and bounce ideas off of. Right now, being self taught, I'm learning from just reading comics and watching Youtube videos that discuss comic books, but I’d love to sit with other creators and see how they troubleshoot panels and transform written ideas into panels.

Artists don’t have time to do that here in Fiji. I know a lot of great artists, but they don’t make comic books. Or if they do, it’s some NGO commission. It’s tough because art is only just being recognized here in Fiji. People don’t pay well enough for it, or at least they didn’t. So all the artists I know are chasing commercial jobs. They don’t have time to make comics. I’d love to see an anthology-style comic, not just in Fiji, but in the Pacific, where artists from the region contribute 4 or 6 pages a month and we can slowly grow the scene from there. Maybe then we could have a small convention. I know there are artists who work on US-based books out of New Zealand. I just found out that one of my absolute favorite artists, Ben Stenbeck, is actually in New Zealand drawing this great book called Baltimore and other Mike Mignola stuff! That is awesome. I’d love to meet him at some sort of Pacific-based convention.

CBY: It’s hard to get good art supplies here in Fiji, as well. With that in mind, can you share with the readers what kind of tools and equipment you’ve prioritized getting your hands on and have found most enjoyable for the different effects you achieve in your art? You work in both ink & paper and digital format, so may you provide any details regarding your technique and process for those interested in how you create various pieces?

CD: When I first started drawing I only did pen and paper and I enjoyed it. I got a nice fountain pen and that worked well for me. BUT I’d be on Twitter and I’d see all these artists with all these beautiful color pieces and I wanted to do that. I opted to buy a tablet and go digital because then I could use virtual brushes and colours instead of ordering stuff in. I still do all my planning and thumbnails on paper with pencils, but I draw my lines in an app called Comic Draw and I colour in Procreate. I was never any good at colouring and it’s funny because a lot of people comment on my colours, saying how they dig it, but I am straight up doing the most basic colouring I can think of. I often look to books that I like staring at and see how they use colour and go from there. I like to make the colour look like it’s done by markers and water brushes, so I've got brush packs for that. I usually use a base primary colour that fits the mood I’m going for and then just add colours from there. I usually do a page from sketch, to lines, to colour before I move onto the next one. It’s probably inefficient, but I like seeing the book come together one page after another that way.

CBY: Beyond your technique, can you tell us a bit about specific visual or narrative influences from comics and other media which influenced you during the planning and drafting of Sala ni Yalo?

CD: I look to animation a lot. I want my panels to look like freeze frames from cartoons. I want to see movement. I think it was Bernie Wrightson who said that he likes to have every one of his panels be dramatic. Like something's gonna happen or has just happened. Genndy Tartakovsky is a huge inspiration for me. I grew on his Samurai Jack and now I’m really into Primal. I watched a lot of that when working on Sala Ni Yalo. Because Genddy is doing what I’m doing. His animation is driven visually, with as little dialogue as possible. I dig comics as a visual medium. I hate seeing pages littered with text balloons. I love Mike Mignola for the same reason. His books are so strong visually. His Third Wish is my absolute favorite and I read that over and over to see how he balances visuals, narrative and speech. Both Mignola and Tartakovsky were a huge influence on me, not only for this book, but for most of my work.

I also read a lot of Tintin. I like that clean, cartoon style, that delivers exactly what you need to see to get what’s happening. Frank Miller and his 300 is another creative influence. That book has a lot of classic lines, but again it is visually so captivating. Warwick Johnson-Cadwell was another artist I looked to a lot for his cartoon-heavy style that juxtaposes his subject matter.

At the end of the day, when someone has dropped their $4.99 on Sala Ni Yalo, even if they hate the story or what ever, I want them to think, “Hey, at least it’s a good looking book.”

CBY: Separate from your direct influences, we always like to provide creators with the opportunity to outline for our readers what has caught their attention lately. What have you been viewing, reading, watching, and/or listening to lately that you think merits mention at the moment?

CD: I’m waiting on a hardcover compilation of Josh Simmons’s bootleg Batman comics. That dude draws a lot of crazy stuff and not all of it is for everyone, but his “Bat” stuff is some of the best deconstructions of the Caped Crusader I have ever read. Because of his outlaw/underground nature, he can tackle themes in ways you can not dare to cover in mainstream comics. I have Josh Simmon’s Birth of the Bat and absolutely love it. The compilation Dream of the Bat is his previous Bat comics that are now out of print and a new story he did especially for the compilation. I’ve been going through his other books too. I love how this dude is straight up just making the kind of books that he wants. It’s not aimed at any mainstream appeal or whatever. This is stuff that he wants to wade through. I’d love to do something like that. Just go all out with my next fan comic.

I’ve been reading a lot of Guy Davis stuff too. I’m trying to consume as many Guy Davis books as I can because I really dig his creature designs.

CBY: Clarence, thank you for joining Comic Book Yeti and sharing your experiences today. Please share any and all links to your portfolio, social media, and Sala ni Yalo release details for inclusion, and hopefully our readers come explore the path of the shades as you’ve depicted it. Today, I get to sign things off with a resounding Vinaka vakalevu!

Batman: Eldritch (fan-comic):

TMNT: Apex (Fan comic):

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